The Sound of Science - 'The Science of Hearing Loss'

Jun 22, 2018

Jeremy Benson and Sam Watt (R) of NIU STEAM.

We're pretty comfortable with vision and glasses. We have our eyes checked regularly, and when our sight becomes blurry we put on glasses to bring the view back into focus. But do we get our ears checked regularly? And if our hearing becomes “blurry” do we put on hearing devices to help us hear? Why can't hearing aids “fix” hearing loss as simply as glasses can “fix” vision? 

First of all, you should know that the eardrum isn’t actually where we hear. The well-known eardrum is just part of a collection chamber that picks up sound waves from the air, then shuttles the waves deeper into our skulls. There, in a tiny, coiled structure called the cochlea - that’s only about the size of a green pea - sound waves finally connect with our hearing nerve via a system of more than 20,000 delicate, microscopic hair cells and fibers, which cannot be fixed or regrown when damaged. Most hearing losses happen because of damage to these hair cells and fibers in the innermost part of our ear. 

For most of us with visual problems, the trouble is simply getting the light focused from the outside to the right part of the sensory structure … essentially, getting it lined up straight. We wear glasses to focus what we see. If vision loss were like hearing loss, almost everyone with poor vision would be suffering from macular degeneration and similar conditions. For people with macular degeneration, sometimes wearing glasses helps. Sometimes more or less light, or contrast, helps. And sometimes the damage is too severe and it doesn’t help. 

So it is with hearing loss. Professionally fitted hearing aids provide targeted, appropriate sound to a damaged sensory structure,. But the structure is still damaged; this is why the audiologist will caution us that while hearing aids help us hear better, they can’t “fix” hearing loss. 

The bottom line? Protect your hearing, and get your hearing checked regularly. Catch hearing loss early and learn how to prevent it.